The bad ones (tales from tenders part II)

5 12 2010

Last week’s post on law firm responses to RFPs (requests for proposal) drew good numbers and prompted some interesting discussion (it’s here if you missed it). I promised I’d follow up the horror stories with some thoughts on what makes both a good and a bad response.

Senior corporate counsel Kevin Ratmiester looked forward to spending his weekend reviewing law firm tender documents

Moving from the terrible to the merely unimpressive, there are some fairly common boo-boos (at least in my book they are boo-boos) that show up time and time again. None of them are fatal, but at the same time they can take the sheen off a response and given the hard work that goes into these documents, it seems a shame not to pick up maximum points!

The first is inconsistency between sections. This is most common when the sections cover different practice areas or different offices (for example on a global pitch) of a law firm. When drafting documents for clients, lawyers are very skilled at ensuring consistency of language and making sure the document reads well. With RFP response often there are sections which have very clearly got different authors and have taken totally different approaches to a common question, giving the document a really disjointed feel, and giving the impression that the two teams don’t really talk to each other. This one is pretty easily remedied and a response that gets it right feels much more aligned and cohesive, which is I suspect what most clients would want from their advisors.

The second common one, is peppering a response with a huge amount of examples which are only slightly relevant, if at all. Let me be clear, very similar work for either similar clients or marquee clients are very instructive and helpful in demonstrating that the law firm has real experience, but too often the examples are not well chosen or their relevance not fully explained. This leads to a high “so what?” factor, particularly by the non-lawyer members of evaluation panels.

One of the real challenges for law firms in these processes is the need to stand out. Many RFP responses are just, well, a bit bland. I don’t have any real silver bullets to explain how to avoid this, but the really good responses (which I’ll look at next week) manage to convey both a real sense of effort with the document, and a genuine hunger for the work. The less impressive ones feel like they’ve just come out of the RFP response sausage factory. For example, a tender I recently ran asked for a firm’s competitive advantage for particular type of work. One response (from an incumbent law firm) answered this simply by saying “we work for you so we know your business”. Well, that’s great, and it may well be true, but the fact that the company I was working with was running a tender process suggests that they were looking at their options for a reason, suggesting this existing knowledge may not be enough? It left me wondering if this was their only source of competitive advantage (and let’s be honest it’s not the hardest barrier to entry to overcome), and if so how they ever won any new business!

Conveying enthusiasm and setting the firm apart from its competitors is difficult; so perhaps a useful step is to get someone in the firm not connected with the tender to read through objectively and see how compelling the document is before it goes out of the door to try and assess how well the team have done specifically in making a distinctive, compelling document.

A personal preference I’ll share with you (and I know other in-house lawyers do take a different view here) is that I’m not a fan of over-reliance on directory awards and quotes. While these type of rankings and verbatims can provide some much needed third party validation, having been on the end of directory research many times both in law firms and as a client reference, the quality of the researchers can vary hugely in my experience, and I wouldn’t necessarily put too much weight on a host of glowing quotes.

Perhaps more useful are client references and direct client quotes. There have been a couple of occasions where I have asked for references and a firm has declined to provide them, which doesn’t send off a strong message, even if the reasons for declining are sound. An engaging, and honest reference (particularly one who will talk honestly about the law firm’s weaknesses as well as their strengths) can do the law firm the power of good, and I would encourage law firms to grow their base of champions who will fulfil this role. Generally speaking, people who have received a really good service from a law firm will be happy to talk about it, and while of course conscious of the need to respect the time of these advocates, I often find these discussions (whichever role I am playing) can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, length. Less is more.


Less is more.

Now the client needs to take some responsibility here, but bear in mind that an evaluation panel will often include senior execs who may not have shaped the process and may only have a marginal interest in proceedings even though they may be important contributors to the decision making process (see Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling for a classic discussion of buyer roles). This people are likely to have neither the time or the inclination to wade through five or six thirty page documents, so do try and keep it readable and concise, or if you are bound by the process to provide a lot of detail, write in such a way as to convey the key points early and clearly (Chip and Dan Heath talk about how to do this in “Made to Stick“).

So next time will be the good guys – some general approaches (without of course compromising and confidences or giving away trade secrets) that press the right buttons. In the meantime, good luck with your tenders.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (RFP Responses)

30 11 2010

Having just completed another RFP (request for proposal) process for legal services for a BPO company, and closed out the subsequent feedback process, it seems an appropriate time to consider the many type of responses I’ve seen when running these exercises.

Trevor from procurement was not impressed by Goldman & Partners' RFP response

Firstly a word about my approach. I’ve run RFPs covering legal support for outsourcing, commercial, employment, financial services, property and one-off projects in my time. My approach is generally to try and make the process as painless as possible both for my internal clients and for the law firms.

Let’s be honest, if the law firm is sweating over a 50 page response, and the potential client has six of these to read, evaluate and discuss, how many of the client senior management team will REALLY read and digest all that material? You may have your own view, but for those who think that execs have the time and inclination to plough through this stuff in a meaningful way, I’d respectfully suggest you read Davenport’s book “The Attention Economy“!

So, starting with the bit lawyers usually enjoy to hear about (when it’s not their firm) – the ugly;  the horror stories; the car crashes.

Names and other identifying details have of course been omitted to protect the guilty.

Perhaps my favourite was the international law firm, that tendering for a large scale, one-off project, set out in some detail how the project management function would be performed by a well qualified, senior associate. No problem with this so far. Methodology seemed sound, experience of the individual looked relevant and the cost of this person was transparent.

So where’s the beef?

Well, the fees section included a £75,000 project management fee. When I phoned up to enquire what this was for (when the cost of the associate performing the project management role was already baked in to the fees) I was met with an uncomfortable silence then a promise to “get back to you”. The resulting explanation was no less unimpressive.


Another project management blunder was the law firm that on a project with the potential for high-six-figure legal fees put forward as a project manager a junior lawyer who despite being both (a) a very competent lawyer; and (b) a genuinely nice guy, was utterly unqualified for large scale project management.

This was evidenced at firm interview stage, when he described the firm’s project management methodology as “Lists. Lots of lists”. Sorry……

Inflexibility around fees is another bugbear. One project saw the company I was working with give sufficient information to price the work with a variety of fee structures, and specifically stated that hourly rate charging would not be considered. Five of the six firms bidding managed to put together compelling charging models, the other explained “We charge the following hourly rates”.

Not to us you won’t be!

Another project, which went out to tender late one summer, explained that for budget reasons it would be helpful for the company to delay payment until the next calendar year. The company explicitly acknowledged that it understood that this may incur an additional fee to cover the cost of the capital, and simply asked firms to make that fee transparent if there would be a charge.

All but one firms came back with an appropriate solution (some of which were quite creative). One came back, helpfully explaining “we bill monthly in arrears”. Thanks.

Ironically, the budget picture internally changed, and a large part of the fee was paid early in the project, providing the successful firm with an unexpected cash flow boost.

Finally, it’s a thin line between an ugly RFP response and simply a bad one (which I’ll look at next week), but this is a tale of a firm walking down that tightrope.

A recent tender that spanned multiple work types asked responding firms for each work type to set out their competitive advantage. One firm responding was an incumbent, and their assessment of their competitive advantage (for each work type) was simply “we work with you, we know your business”.

Now while that is undoubtedly true, I suspect that’s an implicit barrier to entry that all existing advisors enjoy, and to be honest it’s not an insurmountable barrier. To me, the fact that the work is going out to tender suggests that the prospect is considering a number of possible solutions to their need and complacency is not a good idea. If the incumbent firm were bidding for work with a new client, presumably they believe they have some competitive advantage? Assuming that’s the case, I would have thought it best to mention this to build a compelling picture of why they should be selected, rather than rely on the fact that inertia might make keeping the status quo easier than changing.

Let me finish on a less depressing note by saying I’ve seen some stunning responses to RFPs in my time, and while the good and bad are often fairly evenly matched, the ugly ones are relatively few and far between.

But… if you’ve got a response to an RFP going out this week, just have a final look through…..